February 19, 2006

THE MERCY POLICY

“Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Matthew 18:33

Louis is sweating as he walks up the courthouse steps. He owes his friend Michael big time.  Millionaire Michael has given him some huge personal loans over the years to keep Louis’s hardware store afloat. But the store keeps losing money, and Louis’s love of the lottery doesn’t help matters any. It’s all reached the point where Louis is five million dollars in the hole, and with the interest piling up, he’s sinking deeper into debt every day. Michael’s patience has finally run out, and he’s taking Louis to court to get back what he can. It looks like Louis is going to lose everything, not just the store but also his house, since it was part of the collateral.

All this is swirling in Louis’s head as he shuffles down the hall toward the courtroom. Louis glances at his watch. Five more minutes. He looks up from his watch and sees Michael and his attorney striding down the hall. Louis can’t handle it. He breaks down and starts blubbering, “Please, Michael. Don’t do this. At least let us keep the house. Give me another chance. Please! I’ll pay you back. I swear I will.”

Michael the millionaire looks at Louis and feels sorry for him. “Louis,” he says, “You can’t pay me back, no matter how many chances I give you. I know you can’t. But you don’t have to. Why don’t we just forget what you owe me and call it even?”

Louis can hardly believe his ears. But when he sees Michael is serious, he grabs his hand and starts pumping it and babbling his thanks. He promises never to forget Michael’s kindness.

A few days later, Louis is looking through delinquent accounts at his store. He notices that one of his customers, Frank, charged something at the store several months ago, and he owes almost $200. Frank has been an acquaintance of Louis and Michael for years. When Louis sees that unpaid bill, he gets upset. He storms over to Frank’s house and bangs on the door. When Frank opens the door, Louis snarls, “I want that money you owe me, and I want it now!”

Frank pleads with him, “Please be patient. I’ll do my best, but it could take awhile. My company downsized, and I had to take another job that doesn’t pay very well. I’m still looking for something better, but right now it’s tough to make ends meet. By the time we pay the rent and the grocery bill and buy clothes for the kids, there’s nothing left over. But as soon as I find a better job, I’ll pay you back.”

That’s not good enough for Louis. He slams Frank against the wall, pulls off his watch, yanks off his wedding ring, and takes them to a pawnshop, where he gets $50 for them. Then he files for a court order to take a cut out of Frank’s wages every week till the debt is paid.

When word gets back to Michael about all this, what does he do? He shrugs and says, “Well, it’s none of my business. Louis can do what he wants. What he owed me was one thing; what Frank owes him is another. I canceled Louis’s debt, and if he wants to squeeze every penny out of someone else, that’s his business.”

Wait a minute! That’s not how the story ends. No way is Michael going to forget that $5 million debt if Louis is going to bully some poor guy over a lousy $200. When Michael hears what Louis did to Frank, he picks up the phone and tells his lawyer to sue that low-down Louis for everything he’s got, house and all.

Forgiven and Forgivin’

Maybe you recognize the story I’ve just told. It’s another version of a story Jesus once told his friend Peter. In the Bible Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” That sounds like a mighty generous number to Peter. But Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus wants us to forgive each other so often we lose count. And why? Because of how much God forgives us.

Jesus tells Peter the story of how a king forgives one of his subjects an enormous debt, but then the man goes to someone who owes only a small amount, grabs him by the throat and demands his money immediately. The poor fellow pleads for mercy, but his creditor has him thrown into prison. When the king finds out about it he calls the man in and says, “You wicked servant! I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turns him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This,” says Jesus, “is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35).

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his people to say, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). And right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus adds, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).

Does this mean we earn God’s forgiveness by how well we forgive others? No, but it does mean forgiveness is a package deal. Forgiveness isn’t something we earn; it’s a free gift of God through faith in Jesus. But we need to know what the gift involves. When we accept forgiveness as God’s policy toward us, we also accept forgiveness as our policy toward others. We can’t take just one part of the package. We can’t expect God to forgive us if we refuse to forgive others. Forgiveness is a package deal, and genuine faith accepts the whole package.

The deal God offers is the canceling of every debt in your life: the debts you owe to him and the debts others owe you. The deal is that you get to live under a policy where God forgives the sins you’ve committed, and you forgive the sins others have committed against you.

This is one deal you and I can’t afford to reject. There’s no way we can pay the debts we’ve piled up, no way we can pay the price we owe because of our sin. Thank God we don’t have to! The Lord does it for us. In order to write off the loss incurred by our sins, the Lord himself had to absorb it and pay the price. That’s what happened when Jesus hung on the cross, suffering torture and hell: he was paying the price we couldn’t pay. Now he freely offers us the great package deal of forgiveness.

Let me say again: this is one deal you can’t afford to reject. Without Jesus’ death on your behalf, you can’t possibly pay your debt. You’ll be utterly lost. Please understand that you really have just two possibilities: either you can live under a policy where all debts are canceled, or under a policy where no debts are canceled. You can either pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors,” or you can forget about forgiveness altogether. There is no other option. If you don’t want the mercy policy, the package deal of forgiveness, the only alternative is to exist under a policy where every debt is carefully noted, where no offense is ever forgotten. That policy is called hell. I don’t recommend it.

Instead of going to hell, why not go to the cross of Jesus? Why not take all the sin and guilt you’ve piled up and leave it with Jesus? Look at the blood flowing from Jesus’ wounds. Listen to him praying, “Father, forgive them.” Then put your faith in this loving Savior who has paid such a price to cancel debts. Pray to the Lord and ask for grace to cancel your debts to him and others’ debts to you. The cross is the place to get rid of your guilt and the place to get rid of your grudges.

Frequent Forgiveness

When you accept forgiveness as a package deal, you treat others the way God treats you. So if you wonder how often you should you forgive others, the answer is: as often as God forgives you.

Sometimes, when we hear how often we’re supposed to forgive, it hardly seems reasonable. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

Doesn’t that sound like a bit much? Does Jesus really expect you to forgive someone every time he apologizes, even seven times in a single day? If the person were really sorry, he’d stop doing it, wouldn’t he?

But look at it from another angle: How often do you expect God to forgive you? When you commit the same sin over and over, does God say, “That’s it. No more forgiveness. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t have done it again”? No, God knows you still have a sinful nature to struggle against, and he knows that even when you’re sorry, you may end up stumbling again. But if you’re living under his policy of forgiveness in Jesus, you can go to God again and again and again and say, “I repent,” and he promises to forgive. “If we confess our sins,” says the Bible, “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

How often should we forgive each other? As often we’d like God to forgive us. That may mean forgiving seven times in a day, or forgiving seventy times seven, till you lose count. “Love keeps no record of wrongs,” says the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:5). “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). So don’t put any limit on forgiving others that you don’t want God to put on forgiving you. “For with the measure you use,” says Jesus, “it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:36-38).

Receiving God’s Mercy

In the mercy policy, it’s a duty to forgive, but it’s also a privilege. It’s good for you, in at least three ways: forgiving others deepens your relationship to God, it protects and heals your relationships with dear ones, and it even gives you the power to deal with enemies.

Here’s how it deepens your relationship with God. The more you forgive others, the more certain you become that God forgives you. Just when you’re tempted to doubt whether God will forgive a sin because you’ve done it so many times before, you find yourself forgiving someone else for the umpteenth time, and you realize afresh that God wouldn’t expect you to forgive over and over if he were not willing to forgive over and over. Every time you forgive a repeat offender, you enjoy a deeper certainty that God forgives your repeat offenses.

Likewise, when you forgive something horrible, something almost unforgivable that was done to you, it’s one more proof that you’re living under a deal where your own horrible offenses are forgiven by God. Forgiving others makes you more sure than ever that God’s package deal of forgiveness applies to you. You experience more deeply the reality of divine mercy and love.

Repairing Relationships

Another benefit of forgiving others is the impact on your relationships with those who are close to you: a husband or wife, a mom or dad, a son or daughter, a friend or neighbor. Forgiveness is a blessing, because it’s the only thing that keeps these relationships in good repair and prevents them from breaking down permanently.

Once upon a time, a couple went to a marriage counselor. The husband complained, “Whenever we have an argument, my wife becomes historical.” The counselor interrupted, “You mean she becomes hysterical?” “No,” replied the man, “I means she becomes historical. She brings up everything I ever did in the past.”     When people get historical, their relationships deteriorate. When I say to someone, “You always do this” or “I remember all the times you did that,” I’m getting historical. But when I forgive, my relationships are free to flourish. The Bible says,

In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold… And do not grieve the Holy Spirit… Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:26-27,30,32).

When we live under the mercy policy, Satan can’t find a foothold to cause hatred and strife, the Holy Spirit of God brings love and peace into our lives, and we grow closer and closer to each other in spite of our many sins and mistakes.

Under the mercy policy, we deal with offenses just as quickly as possible. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Jesus says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Don’t nurse a secret grudge. Rebuke the one who wronged you. Be open and honest.  Give the other person a chance to apologize, and then be quick to forgive.

I should add a word of caution here. Not everything that makes you mad is a sin that needs to be rebuked and forgiven. You might prefer that your spouse leave the toilet seat down or up. You might wish your neighbor wouldn’t run his lawnmower when you’re trying to take a nap. These may be things you want to discuss, or irritants you need to excuse, but they’re not sins that call for rebuke or forgiveness.

Another caution. We’ve been looking especially at forgiving others, but let’s not forget how often we need to ask others to forgive us. That’s also part of the package. You may ask God’s forgiveness, you may even be willing to forgive people who hang their head and admit they’re wrong, but how willing are you to humble yourself and apologize to others? We’re often better at seeing what’s wrong with others than seeing what’s wrong with us. And even if we see it, we’re reluctant to admit it and ask forgiveness from another person. We’ve been talking about forgiving others, but just as often we are the ones who need to say we’re sorry and ask their forgiveness.

But what about those times when we can’t sort out who did what when we can’t agree who’s to blame. What then? In situations like that—and there are many—we need the grace to deal with loose ends. If you find a thread sticking out on a shirt, you can pull and pull at it, but if you do, you may ruin the garment. It’s often better just to take scissors and snip it off. In the same way, you can keep tugging and tugging at a grievance—both of you are convinced that the other is wrong and should apologize—but often it’s best just to snip the loose end. Let the matter drop. Forget about it. Let God figure it out. What’s more important? To prove you’re right, or to prove you love each other?

When I pray to God, I trust him to forgive the sins I confess, but I also trust him to forgive the sins I don’t confess because I don’t even realize I’m committing them. I trust him to forgive faults which I don’t even notice in myself. In the same way, there are times when we need to forgive each other without ever quite knowing or agreeing what it is that needs forgiving.  Living with a policy of forgiveness means you forgive people who say they’re sorry, but it also means that when things are so muddled that you can’t agree who should be sorry about what, or who needs to forgive what, you’re able to let the matter drop.

Dealing With Enemies

Forgiveness deepens your trust in God, it renews and repairs relationships with people you close to you, and here’s a final benefit: it empowers you to deal with your enemies.

It’s one thing to forgive a friend who hurt you but at least still cares about you. But what about an enemy who hurts you and is glad about it? What if someone got you fired out of pure malice and would do it again if they got the chance? What if someone destroyed your reputation with lies and is proud of it? What if someone molested you but won’t admit it or ask your forgiveness?  What if a spouse abandoned you to run off with someone else, and they’re not one bit sorry for the promises they broke or the pain they caused? Every time they see you, they hurt you even more. What then? What if somebody hates you and won’t consider reconciliation, no matter how much you seek it?

Well, if you’ve accepted God’s gift of forgiveness, you don’t nurse grudges even against those who have chosen to be your enemies. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). The Lord isn’t asking us to do anything he hasn’t already done. Jesus died for us when we were his enemies. When soldiers smashed spikes into his hands and feet and hoisted him up on a cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

When you belong to Jesus, you live in the free and triumphant Spirit of forgiveness. Romans 12:17-21 says,

Do not repay evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Forgiveness overcomes evil with good. So don’t let someone else’s cruelty ruin your life or poison your spirit. If you’re obsessed with resentment and revenge, your enemies have won: your attitude is determined by what they did to you. But forgiveness means victory: it means you are controlled by the love of God rather than by the hatred of your enemies.

If they want to hate, that’s their problem. Don’t let it become your problem. Leave it in God’s hands. If they persist in their evil, they will eventually face the terrible vengeance of God himself. So instead of feeling resentment, feel pity. Instead of seeking revenge, pray that God will yet lead your enemies to repentance and transform them into friends. Even if they choose to remain slaves of hate, you are free to love.

What a marvel to it is to have God’s gift of forgiveness as a package deal, to forget about debts, to leave all our guilt and all our grudges at the cross of Christ. It’s not that sin isn’t serious. It’s just that no matter how great our sins are, God’s love in Jesus is greater still, and his love lives in us.

PRAYER

Our Father who art in heaven, forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Because of Christ’s blood, do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are, any of the sins we do or the evil that constantly clings to us. Forgive us just as we are fully determined, as evidence of your grace in us, to forgive our neighbors. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.